On its best day Las Vegas is merely absurd. At its worst it is a sort of Disneyland for consenting adults, a sprawling monument to greed, free enterprise gone berserk, with a sports scene tending to the flash of heavyweight title fights and jai alai and winner-take-all tennis matches in which the winner doesn't. The polar opposite of human endeavor, it is certainly the last place one would expect to find 11 of the world's best amateur weight lifters. Yet there they were last week, checking into the indescribably garish lobby of the Aladdin Hotel at the southern end of the Strip, still blinking from the desert sun outside, another element of farce added to a scene that hardly needed more. Before long, bear-sized superheavyweights in blue sweat suits were dropping silver dollars into crashing slot machines, and gnomelike flyweights were gazing into the bowls of spinning roulette wheels while cocktail waitresses dressed as Middle Eastern carhops positioned their d�colletages as near as possible to eye level.
Russia's three top superheavyweights, led by the incomparable (a Las Vegas adjective usually reserved for the likes of Shecky Greene) Vasily Alexeyev, and a company of eight other world-class lifters in five weight categories were in town to star in a made-for-television sporting event called the Record Makers Invitational. The format, chosen for its dramatic potential and adaptability to a small, unbalanced, arbitrarily chosen field, called for the athletes to pursue records rather than each other. The foreign stars were advertised as going after world records, while the three Americans in the field, superheavyweights Bruce Wilhelm and Tom Stock and middle heavyweight. Phil Grippaldi, none of whom is within striking distance of a world record, were to take aim at American marks. This smashing of records, at least those of the superheavies, was to be shown live Saturday afternoon on CBS' Sports Spectacular to a hoped-for audience of 30 million.
Top Rank, Inc., the closed-circuit TV specialists who will be recalled, without enthusiasm, for their part in the Evel Knievel Snake River Canyon escapade and whose bread and butter is championship boxing, came up with the idea of Record Makers. It was also Top Rank that chose Las Vegas and the Aladdin Hotel as its venue, signed up the AAU's National Weight Lifting Committee to run the event, and then sold the package to CBS-TV for an amount that Mike Malitz, a partner in Top Rank, described as a "normal amount for a one-hour CBS Sports Spectacular. Six figures. Less than a quarter million and more than $100,000."
Despite, or perhaps because of, the ambiance, hopes were high, especially those of the AAU. To National Weight Lifting Committee Chairman Murray Levin of Gettysburg, Pa., the man who traveled to Moscow to persuade the Russians to come, it was the chance of a lifetime. "For 20 years our sport has been in a rut," he said one day early in the week as he sat with some of his fellow committeemen over lunch in the Genie Buffet. "This represents a new awakening. We want to glamorize weight lifting." His voice was occasionally drowned out by the Aladdin's public-address system announcing the latest winner of a keno jackpot, but he continued. "You have one chance. If you do it right, the doors will open up."
The doors to which Levin referred are the doors that lead to the offices of corporation presidents who might be interested in underwriting the U.S. amateur weight-lifting program. One interested party, he says, is Mack Trucks.
Levin left no stone unturned in his effort to do things right. For instance, he ordered new uniforms for the national committee—red blazers and red, white and blue striped ties. He chose national champions to serve as loaders and made sure that everybody who matters in American weight lifting was present and visible. He even chose the music. "At the opening ceremony," he said, "there will be dramatic music and the curtain will open and the whole committee will be on stage. I chose Mutiny on the Bounty. The 1962 version."
"I thought 2001 would be good," interjected Morris Weissbrott, an administrator in the New York City Department of Parks.
"This is better, Morris," said Levin. "Take my word for it."
So on Saturday morning there they all were, ranged about the vast stage of the 7,000-seat Aladdin Theater for the Performing Arts, where only hours before the incomparable Gabe Kaplan and the incomparable Anne Murray had been knocking 'em dead—the committee in its red blazers, with Mutiny on the Bounty still ringing in its ears; CBS, cameras grinding, storing away footage to balance the other half of the show (the world's strongest man competition, wherein people were to run races with refrigerators on their backs); and Top Rank's publicist, in the best tradition of professional boxing, passing out copies of Alexeyev's measurements. All of them waiting to cash in, one way or another, on the efforts of a group of extraordinary athletes.
The only thing they had overlooked in their planning was the fact that great athletes do not necessarily produce world records on demand. By 2:50 p.m., when CBS stopped its cameras, not only had Vasily Alexeyev not produced a world record in the clean and jerk, he had not even attempted one. It had finally become clear that just about everything that could go wrong had done so, and everybody was trying to figure out whom to blame.